The most remarkable piece of fan mail Donna Summer ever received was from a young man who wrote to tell her of the day he played "I Feel Love" at maximum volume. He knew it wouldn't bother his mother, who was deaf and using the vacuum cleaner. Miraculously, the mother started vacuuming to the beat and humming the melody. Within moments, she was singing along. The song had cured her deafness. Now that is disco power.
Born in Boston on New Year's Eve, 1948, LaDonna Adrian Gaines is no stranger to miracles. Her first encounter with the divine was during a childhood gospel performance. As she explains in her autobiography, Ordinary Girl, she clearly heard the voice of God uttering a cautionary prognosis: "You're going to be famous. That's power, and you're never to misuse it."
Her next brush with the eternal unknowable came as a teenager. Lost on New York's Bowery one afternoon, she was accosted by a man with a flowing white beard who clutched her arm and stared deeply into her eyes. "Listen to me," the ancient mariner-type commanded. "You must cross the waters! Don't be lazy. Now do what I say!"
Shaking in her miniskirt, the teenaged singer turned back to look at the stranger, but he had disappeared. "It was weird, really weird. It was as if for a split second we had crossed over into another dimension. Time itself had seemed to stand still... At that moment I knew that I had been touched by an angel."
LaDonna took the bearded angel's advice, crossing the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and relocating to Germany to join the European production of the musical Hair in 1968. After marrying Helmuth Sommer, she became Donna Summer, the rising Queen of Disco. Her 1974 collaboration with producer Giorgio Moroder resulted in a massive European hit, "Love To Love You, Baby." With its orgasmic vocals ad her iconic "Black Marilyn Monroe" image, the track soon took America by storm. Summer returned to the U.S. a world-famous sex symbol.
Unfortunately for this "ordinary girl," she was devastated by the hyper-scrutiny of celebrity. Rumors circulated and soon enough, the world's media began reporting, as fact, that she was a transvestite. During an interview in South America, a journalist kept staring at her in an unsettling manner. "When I finally asked him what the matter was, he said 'Oh nothing. Except, you know, you really don't look at all like a man.'"
Both the media and her showbiz associates were constantly dissecting her looks. When she ran into Sammy Davis Jr., he said, "Come on Donna, who did your nose?" Despite her protests that the schnoz was a birthright, he persisted: "Sweetheart, nobody has a nose like that."
The pressures of fame culminated in a 1976 suicide attempt, prevented, she believes, by divine intervention. A maid walked into her hotel room just as she was about to jump out the window. Soon after, a therapist prescribed Marplan, an MAO inhibitor, which helped her deal with both the inner turmoil and the stream of tragedies shadowing her. In a short, gangster-rap-esque span, two brothers-in-law died in separate car crashes, her sister's baby died of sudden infant death syndrome her nephew accidentally shot himself in the heart, her cousin was shot by cops, and her uncle Solomon was killed in a hit-and-run.
Joining a Christian prayer circle, she underwent another life-changing religious experience in 1979. "During our prayer a sense of elation came over me that as beyond any spiritual experience I had ever had before. I felt as if a ton of bricks were lifted off my shoulders. This feeling blew into me like a hurricane, through my whole body, taking with it anything and everything that was troubling me."
In this moment, with her "entire being bathed in light," God spoke to her yet again, and a mantra came to her. "I started repeating this one word, 'Abba,' over and over again. The light came shining into my spirit... It was the same light I had seen shining on that stranger down in the Bowery that night so very long ago!"
In our recent interview, Summer claimed she never made a connection between the band and the mantra. "I didn't in any way equate my word 'Abba' with the disco band. I had no idea what I was saying at the time, it just came to me. I just kept praying and then one day I saw it in the Bible and it said Abba means father, so it turned out I had been saying the right thing all along."
Nonetheless, it's certainly an uncanny namesake, and just one of the many magical moments in her extraordinary life. Perhaps Summer's greatest accomplishment has been her staying power. In the '80s, she wrote a string of hits including "She Works Hard For The Money" and "This Time I Know It's For Real." Her newest track, "I Got Your Love," recently cracked the Billboard Club Play Top 20. Last fall, Dolce & Gabbana hired her to play their twentieth anniversary celebration in Milan. "They went literally gung ho," explains Summer. "They had recently purchased a building in Milan, which they renovated for the night into a discotheque with gold leather everywhere. The créme de la créme of Milano showed up. Dolce & Gabbana made me these outfits that I will wear for the rest of my life, believe me. They're so laden with jewels, and so drenched in Swarovski crystals that I feel like a walking diamond when I wear them."
With her five Grammy awards and her fabled ups and downs, Summer has rightfully earned the title of diva - in the most positive sense. "Diva to me means a singer who has taken her career to amicable heights and has succeeded in maintaining it and bringing it to even greater heights of success and legend and greatness," she explains. "Unfortunately, today, it also implies that you act out and do mean things and get nasty. Many people equate it with that negative aspect, but I don't think it means that at all."
One of the ways she has maintained her nice divadom is through painting. Although she's currently setting up a new "atelier," she plans to continue working in her preferred idiom: abstract expressionism. One of her artistic inspirations has been Sylvester Stallone. "I went to dinner at his house when he was still living with Brigitte Nielsen," she recalls. "He had these two large paintings hanging on the wall that he'd done. I'd been doing little ones, and I didn't realize how cramped I'd been feeling until I saw Sylvester's paintings. As soon as I saw them, I knew I needed to work in a larger format. My thoughts were bigger than I had space for on the small canvasses, so I switched and found this sudden freedom. It really started to churn in my being that big was really the right place to be."
So, with such a colorful life, why title her recent autobiography Ordinary Girl? "That's all I am. Not to get overly philosophical, but I grew up as an ugly little black girl with no hope for the future, no hope for college, no chance of being exceptional except that I was given a gift by God that became a focal point. There was nothing different about me, except that I had a gift. And we all have a gift inside of us, so I don't see myself as different. I'm an ordinary girl."
Adam Leith Gollner
photo by Roxanne Lowit
(taken at the Dolce & Gabbane 20th Anniversary party October 2005)